Artist makes giant brushes ‘dance’ to create contemporary Zen paintings


Roughly once a year, contemporary Zen artist Rosemary KimBal invites prospective students into her Cardiff studio to learn how to make giant brushes “dance” across sheets of paper.

KimBal, who has two huge paintings on permanent display in the main lobby at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, works in a variety of mediums, including tile mosaics. She loves her several-foot-long brushes because they allow her to capture “the essence of the subject in very few strokes,” she said.

She recently demonstrated this by recreating a bowl of cherries for a few students in the first of two workshop sessions she’s holding at her studio. The second session is scheduled for July 21.

With swirling strokes, KimBal deftly manipulated her big paint brush to produce a cluster of seven, luscious-looking, red fruits. Then, she shifted colors and began delicately adding a hint of black stem to each fruit with the very tips of a brush. In one final sudden movement, she ran a dark, L-shaped strip of paint across a corner of the page.

“Did I want that? It’s too late now,” she said as she uncertainly eyed the curving strip of paint a moment afterward.

Her students and several class helpers told her she’d just painted the edge of the cherry bowl without realizing she was doing it. That’s the magic of this style of painting, she said.

KimBal’s brushes, many which were purchased while on excursions to China and Japan, are treasured objects. On one trip to China when “everybody else went to the Great Wall, I went to the art store and I was there for eight hours,” she recalled, laughing.

Her teaching assistant, Portia La Touche, said that authentic Zen art brushes, like KimBal’s, have animal hair bristles.

“If you’re seeing synthetic, it’s a terrible imitation,” she said.

Badger hair is stiffer, while sheep hair has a softer edge, La Touche said, adding that artists typically want to produce a multi-lined effect with a single brush stroke, and thus tend to prefer a stiffer brush.

Working with a huge brush can cause paper problems -- very thin paper can melt away under heavy brush strokes because the big brushes hold so much paint, she said.

KimBal, who has been painting since the 1970s and teaching classes since the 1980s, said people are often fooled into thinking that it’s easy to create her pictures because she puts her paint strokes onto the paper so fast. However, she said, she typically spends hours beforehand working out a design in her head before she puts paint to paper.

In the case of the Andean condor painting she produced for neighbors Greg Heldt and Siria Poucell-Hatton, that process easily took weeks, she said, because she wasn’t familiar with the animal before the painting project. The couple attended her class recently to learn more about how she did the piece.

“You never appreciate things as much if you don’t know what it takes to get there,” Poucell-Hatton said.

She learned that just lifting the brush off the paper wasn’t an easy task. If she yanked it quickly upward at the end of a brush stroke, she risked scattering unwanted paint blobs across her paper as well as onto surrounding surfaces.

It takes practice to slowly lift the brush at the end of a stroke, KimBal and La Touche told her.

To register for the next workshop session -- an all-day class costing $175 -- visit:

A few days after the July 21 workshop, KimBal’s work will appear in a new exhibit. She’s one of the participating artists in a contemporary Chinese brush art exhibit which opens July 29 at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

--Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.